Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Sitting in a large conference room in the new Gazi Husrev Bey public library in Sarajevo, Mustafa Ceric has replaced his flowing Islamic black garb for a snug suit and tie. A white and green woven flower – the symbol of the July 11, 1995 Srebrenica genocide is pinned to his lapel whenever he attends public events.
Outside the conference room, in the auditorium, guests from around the world have arrived in Sarajevo to participate in a symposium marking the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I. Politicians and academics have prepared speeches highlighting reconciliation and peace- concepts.
“Are we less intelligent? Are we less hardworking?” Ceric asked. “What is the secret that people who leave Bosnia and Herzegovina, who go west with nothing in their pockets end up with a job, a house; they send their children to school, and they’re even able to save up some money to send to their people who live here?”
Listed in 2012 as one of the top 50 most influential Muslims in the world by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Mustafa Ceric, Bosnia’s former grand mufti of 20 years threw his bid in Bosnia’s general elections on October 12 as an independent candidate for the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) seat of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency.
It’s the first time a former religious leader has signed up to run in Bosnia’s presidential elections since the country’s formation in December 1995 after the signing of the Dayton peace agreement, which halted the three-and-a-half years of war.
Today the country faces staggering challenges. Bosnia’s unemployment rate hovers at around 45 percent. According to a 2008 report by Bosnia’s Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, around 1,350,000 Bosnians live outside of Bosnia – roughly a quarter of the country’s total population. News reports in Bosnia regularly feature stories of the most recent slew of medical workers moving to Germany for work and a better future.
These facts have motivated Ceric’s bid for presidency. He’s calling for a large-scale financial rescue programme designed to build up industry and remove trade barriers to restore Bosnia’s struggling economy by leading the country on the path towards NATO and EU membership.
As the newest face on Bosnia’s political scene, Ceric brings international experience and influence. He’s participated seven times in the World Economic Forum in Davos and has collected numerous international awards relating to peace and interfaith understanding.
Fluent in Bosnian, Arabic and English; educated from Cairo to Chicago; Ceric has worked as a professor in Bosnia, the United States, Malaysia and Jordan.
Two years ago, as Bosnia’s grand mufti, Ceric founded the World Bosniak Congress, the Bosniak Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Bosniak National Foundation based in Sarajevo, with the aim of uniting Bosniaks globally and strengthening their ties in the Balkans, protecting them from another potential genocide. He has labeled Bosnia as the home for all Bosniaks.
Who’s on first?
Adis Arapovic, a political analyst and manager of Bosnia’s Centre for Civil Initiatives said that he believes Ceric, as a former religious official, has as much of a chance of winning as his opponents.
“The president of Germany was a former religious official, indirectly elected, and that doesn’t bother European and German democracy, modernity and secularism,” Arapovic said.
A poll set up on Facebook – with Bosnia’s electoral commission listed as its website – shows Emir Suljagic, a candidate from the newly formed Democratic Front party, leading for the Bosniak seat.
Suljagic is the founder and former coordinator of Bosnia’s “March First” coalition, which unites 44 civil organisations that work to bring equal rights for all Bosnians throughout the country. The coalition has achieved many goals since forming only two years ago, including raising the rate of non-Serb returnees to the Republika Srpska entity by lobbying for a series of laws in parliament that protect returnees’ rights.
Another contender is incumbent Bakir Izetbegovic, son of the late Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic and member of the SDA party (Party of Democratic Action). In the 2010 elections, Izetbegovic beat nine candidates with 35 percent of the vote.
Fahrudin Radoncic, president of the Union for a Better Future (SBB) party and former minister of security, is also a contender this year. A total of 10 candidates are in the runing for the Bosniak seat.
Ceric has been considered a liberal and moderate Islamic leader but some of his statements made while serving as grand mufti have garnered criticism from secular Bosnians.
He has spoken highly of Sharia law but admitted it is unrealistic to implement it in Bosnia.
He’s also known for glorifying the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Balkans for five centuries. In 2008, during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Ceric said, “Turkey is our Mother. That’s how it always was, and it will remain like that”.
Jasmin Mujanovic, a PhD candidate of political science at York University in Toronto, believes Ceric’s candidacy to be profoundly problematic.
“Religious figures of his stature should have no place running for public office, especially in countries like Bosnia where questions of faith are so politically charged,” Mujanovic stated.
“By running for the Bosniak post of the presidency, Ceric is only furthering the idea that faith and nation are one and the same in Bosnia; in this case that Bosniak and Muslim are interchangeable identities.”
In May 2009, while visiting Serbia’s Bosniak-majority Sandzak region, Ceric said, “We are one; there is no force that could separate us,” referring to Bosniaks in both Sandzak and Bosnia. Having previously criticised Serbia’s human rights violations of Bosniaks, Ceric says that human rights in Bosnia need to be addressed first in order for the economy to pick up.
Two months are left until the elections, and minorities such as Roma and Jews still can’t run as candidates, according to Bosnia’s constitution implemented by Dayton. Ceric maintains that Dayton has made Bosnia “the black hole of human rights and human respect”.
In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights urged constitutional reform, but Bosnia still hasn’t made changes.
Mujanovic and Arapovic agree that Ceric’s lack of political experience is a handicap he will have to bear, but Ceric remains confident that the Bosniak seat of the Presidency will be added to his CV.
“You know the saying in the Bible, ‘In the beginning was the word,'” Ceric said with a smile. “At the moment, I have ideas, I have words… I believe this is a process; this is a journey.”
Published in Al Jazeera English on August 16, 2014